Summary and Analysis
Act III: Scenes 1-3
Left alone with Oenone after hearing that she is the new regent of Athens, Phaedra confesses that she shares Hippolytus' views on her ability to rule. She cannot even govern her own emotions; how is she to govern a great state?
Oenone urges her to take up her duties and forget Hippolytus, but Phaedra says it is too late. She has confessed her love to Hippolytus, and Oenone has taught her how to hope. Oenone reminds her how scornfully Hippolytus has rejected her, but Phaedra is already interpreting the rejection in a more favorable light. Perhaps, she thinks, Hippolytus was simply surprised: After all, he had never heard words of love spoken to him before.
Oenone doubts it: "He hates all women," she says somberly, but Phaedra, impatient, calls on her to "serve my passion, not my reason." She has a plan; if Hippolytus is not fond of women, he appears to find the regency of Athens attractive, and it is now at Phaedra's disposal. Oenone is to tempt Hippolytus with the information that if Hippolytus will take over the guardianship of Phaedra's son and Phaedra herself, the queen will cede him the crown. If an offer of love has not touched his heart, perhaps an offer of power may do so.
Oenone departs to carry out her instructions, and Phaedra, left alone, implores Venus to cease tormenting her and to turn her vengeance rather upon the obdurate Hippolytus. Oenone returns almost immediately with shattering news. Phaedra must forget her plans: Theseus is alive; he is in Troezen.
Instantly, Phaedra resolves not to live to see her husband's face. How can she greet him when Hippolytus will be looking on, with the memory of her declaration to him fresh in his ears? And Hippolytus will certainly tell his father what has passed. Bitterly she reproaches Oenone: If her nurse had allowed her to die that morning, as she wished, she would have died with dignity; now she will leave a dishonored name behind her, which will shame her race and her sons.
Oenone immediately pleads with Phaedra: Her sons will certainly suffer, but if Phaedra consents, both she and her sons may be spared this shame and the satisfaction with which Hippolytus will savor it. How does Phaedra feel now about Hippolytus? Phaedra, seeing in him a reflection of her own dishonor, cries, "In my eyes he is a frightful monster!" and Oenone, satisfied, proceeds. Why should Phaedra not speak first and accuse Hippolytus of the same crime of which he is preparing to accuse her? Her story will be instantly believed; her previous dislike for him will be explained, and his sword is there as material evidence that he threatened her. Phaedra is horrified by this proposal, but Oenone assures her that Phaedra need do nothing. Oenone will speak and take the lie upon herself. Phaedra, stung by the remembrance of Hippolytus' rejection, consents.
The distinction usually made between classicism and romanticism is that they represent, respectively, reason and passion. Phaedra, as the play and this scene in particular demonstrate, is as passionate as any romantic heroine. However, there is a significant difference. The classical heroine, in the midst of the most violent transports, retains a complete lucidity. In spite of the trauma of her confession, Phaedra noted with the utmost precision Hippolytus' humiliating reaction. She was perfectly aware of his embarrassment, his evasiveness, and his indifference to her threat of suicide.
She also refuses to rationalize her own emotions. She admits with a kind of masochistic violence the full, inexcusable madness of her love. In the context of her lucidity, Phaedra's surrender to her passions acquires a special horror. She is now beyond shame as she systematically attempts to capitalize on Hippolytus' weaknesses: his ambition and his pity. She will now go to him without his reciprocal love.
Scene 2, in addition to formalizing Phaedra's moral degradation, indicates Racine's Greek inspiration. The play seems to be based squarely on a conflict between a protesting human being and a vindictive deity.
In Scene 3, Oendne, who from the beginning was more than a simple confidante, now acquires extraordinary force. She is a veritable female Iago, cunningly trying to convince Phaedra that she should commit another unspeakable crime: the slander of Hippolytus. To prepare Phaedra for this betrayal and to dissuade her from suicide, Oenone takes the unusual step of reinforcing her fears. She agrees that Phaedra's suicide would be tantamount to an admission of guilt, with a concomitant disgrace for her children. Then Oenone makes the treacherous suggestion that Hippolytus be accused of trying to seduce his stepmother and she emphasizes the plausibility of the accusation. To overcome Phaedra's reluctance, she offers to do the distasteful deed herself. Finally, in rapid succession, Oenone plays on Phaedra's sense of decency by reassuring her of Theseus' indulgence toward his son, and her pride by holding out the specter of ruined honor.
Yet, evil though she is, Oenone lacks Iago's satanic quality. She does not seek the downfall of her mistress. Quite the contrary, she is motivated by an extraordinary, albeit misguided, love. If she uses every last bit of cunning, it is because she is fighting Phaedra's impending suicide and disgrace, an unbearable prospect.
Phaedra is perhaps more excusable than Oenone: She is listening to an insidious voice. In addition, like her other transgressions, this one too is unpremeditated. The shock of Theseus' sudden appearance, the visual reminder of her imminent exposure, tips the scales. Phaedra is not a monster, and Racine's frequent evocations of the words "monster" and "monstrous" in relation to her family and to the experiences of Hippolytus and Theseus is intended to evoke horror at her passion, but not at the woman herself. Indeed, in this section of the play Racine deliberately departs from his Greek original to sustain his conception of Phaedra as a tormented, but not an evil, woman. In Euripides, it is Phaedra herself who accuses Hippolytus in a letter she leaves behind after her suicide; here the murderous lie is the doing of Oenone.
There is a profound dramatic and psychological irony in the fact that neither woman supposes for a moment that Hippolytus will keep silent about what has passed, although in fact we have already seen him refuse to confide in Theramenes. Each woman is too conscious of her own guilt and of the punishment she deserves to envision such an act of purity and magnanimity.